SYCAMORE – Former firefighter and paramedic John Yanni III, of St. Charles, was sentenced Friday to 6 years in prison for driving under the influence in 2017, causing a four-car crash which killed DeKalb High School senior Johnathon Ode and injured several others.
Yanni, 28, of the 100 block of South 18th Street in St. Charles, did not react when DeKalb County Circuit Court Judge Phillip Montgomery passed his sentence. He faced a minimum 3-year, maximum 14-year sentence for an aggravated DUI charge, for which Yanni plead guilty in January, though his lawyer, Liam Dixon, asked for probation instead of a jail sentence.
Ode's father, Steve Ode, along with Patricia Cortez – mother of Evan Cortez, who was riding shotgun in Johnathon Ode's car, both on their way to a friend's house to play video games around 7:15 p.m. Jan. 17, 2017, when they were struck by Yanni's car – cried as they sat in the courtroom Friday.
Ode wept throughout the sentencing, and as read his victim impact statement, he spoke of his late wife, Katie Ode, Johnathon's stepmother. On Feb. 18, Katie Ode died from cancer. Two days later, Yanni plead guilty four days before his trial was set to begin.
"The pain that he caused my wife, in her last two years," Ode said in an interview after the ruling, voice trailing off. "Two days after she passed, then he's pleading. He could have done this at any point."
Yanni's been free out on bond since the crash. The victims' families were left, in turn "to pick up the pieces," Patricia Cortez said, fighting for justice over a choice that changed everything.
"You had all the advantages that life has to offer, yet you chose to throw that away," Montgomery said, addressing Yanni prior to passing the sentence. "There are no winners here today."
He called Yanni's behavior that January evening "selfish and self-centered." He said Yanni's blood-alcohol-content level was 0.125%, "comfortably" above the legal limit. Yanni, a former paramedic and firefighter with the Fox River & Countryside Fire/Rescue District, "should have known," better than to drink and drive, Montgomery said.
As he made his own statement Friday, Yanni stood up, looked directly at Ode and Cortez and began crying.
“Everyone involved from the bottom of my heart, I’m sorry," he said. "I’m so very sorry. If I could trade places with Johnathon or your wife, I would. I stand before you today asking for forgiveness. I understand this is a hard request that may take time or not happen at all. Regardless of outcome, I will continue to pray for those affected.”
'You took my son away'
Courtroom 220 was a somber scene on a chilly Friday, Sept. 11 afternoon, as Judge Montgomery remarked the days' significance.
Throughout the sentencing hearing, as character witnesses came forward both in person and via Zoom to testify that John Yanni had a heart for service and saved lives, Montgomery reminded those watching why they were there.
"We're here today, Mr. Yanni, because of the decisions that you made," he said. "You made a choice to go to the bar and have a drink. You made a choice to have another beer. How many beers you ultimately had? I don't know. You compounded those decisions by driving home."
Yanni, who lived and worked in St. Charles at the time, had been drinking at a bar in Elgin before getting behind the wheel of his 2001 Chevrolet Silverado and heading to DeKalb.
His car crossed the center lane on Route 38 east of Peace Road, first hitting a 1995 Ford F-150 pickup driven by River J. Rich, of Cortland, then collided head-on with Ode’s and Evan's vehicle, a 2000 Ford Taurus. Yanni's car then came to a stop after smashing into a 2002 Hyundai Elantra driven by Scott McAdams, who now serves as DeKalb's fifth ward alderman, who suffered a stroke as a result of the crash.
“On that cold January night, you took my son away from me by making a poor choice," Ode said.
He spoke about his last memory of Johnathon as one of horror: seeing his dead body in a bag in the DeKalb County Coroner's Office, touching his son's cold hand having just shared a meal together with younger brother Louis Ode and Katie the night prior.
Patricia Cortez struggled through her victim impact statement, weeping as she read words she said took hours to craft to express the "depth of pain, sorrow, anger and emotional stress Mr. Yanni has caused my family."
Evan's Northern Illinois University career was placed on hold in the aftermath of the crash, as he suffered serious physical injuries, having to relearn how to walk. His mental trauma as a result, his mother said, still lingers, and he doesn't drive.
Karen Suggs, family friend and member of Illinois MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) read a posthumous victim impact statement written by Katie Ode before her death.
Like her husband, Katie Ode reflected on the pain and trauma of losing a child. She'd battled cancer before her second bout with it years prior.
“I'd pray ‘Please God, don’t let me die and leave my family to grieve another person," she wrote.
In her grief, Katie's fears lingered on her son's last moments.
“I am haunted. How long did Johnathon suffer in this car? Was he alone? Was he in pain? Did anyone help him? It makes me feel faint to think about these questions.”
Liam Dixon, Yanni's defense attorney appealed to Montgomery to impose a sentence of probation instead, in light of what he said was Yanni's character.
In a character testimony via Zoom, Fox River Fire Rescue Batallion Chief Scott Sutherland said Yanni was an asset to the department.
"I'd hire him back in a second if I could," Sutherland said.
Nicole Busker, Yanni's sister, also gave testimony, as did friend Daniel Ciullo.
"It’s not lost on him it’s not lost on me, it’s very hard because they’re (Ode/Evans families) sitting right there," Ciullo said, as Yanni looked at him, crying, covering his masked face with his hand. "No one’s winning here.”
DeKalb County State's Attorney Rick Amato said after the sentencing, the long road to recovery now awaits the victims' families.
"The Ode and Cortez family are just extraordinary people," Amato said. "I can't imagine what it's been like for them to live through what they've had to go through and endure."
Ode called his testimony Friday "the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my life, and I've fought cancer."
"I am very happy that Judge Montgomery laid it out as he did," Ode said. "To put the personal responsibility on John Yanni, and did it in such an eloquent way that it really brings to light even though he is reformed as he might be, he still caused my son’s death and great bodily harm, and Evan’s going to have to live with that the rest of his life."
Cortez called the scene tragic but lamented, like Ode, why Yanni didn't plead guilty sooner, to save their families the trauma of a drawn-out court process.
"I feel for his family, too, but no one forced him to put those keys in the car."